ARUN RATH, HOST:
Writer James Ellroy has been capturing a gritty film-noirish Los Angeles for decades now with novels like "The Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential." He's just released the first installment in a new L.A. crime quartet - a 700-page epic called "Perfidia." It follows many of the same characters from those previous novels. And it focuses around L.A. police response to a horrific murder of a Japanese-American family the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
James Ellroy's life reads like a James Ellroy novel. He was just 10 when his mother was murdered in East Los Angeles - a case that was never solved. Ellroy still lives here in L.A., so he invited us to lunch. James Ellroy, thank you for joining us.
JAMES ELLROY: Arun, it's good to be here.
RATH: We're at the Pacific Dining Car, a relic of a steakhouse near downtown L.A. It's his favorite restaurant.
ELLROY: I've been here at least 16 trillion times. They've made films about me here. I met my beloved second ex-wife, the novelist Helen Knode, in that booth I'm pointing to. We had our divorce party here. So it's a place with some history
RATH: What do you like about it?
ELLROY: I like steak. I like that it's been here since 1921. I like that it's quiet and comfortable and cool on what bodes as the hottest day of the year.
UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: Are you ready to order?
RATH: For me, the crab cakes. And Ellroy...
ELLROY: Brother, how about a chicken Caesar with extra anchovies.
RATH: We start out talking about Los Angeles.
ELLROY: My relationship to Los Angeles is entirely autobiographical. I was born two blocks from here in 1948. So my parents hatched me in the film noir epicenter at the height of the film noir era, and my parents were right out of film noir.
In my book "My Dark Places" about my mother's murder, I said they were a great-looking - my mother and dad - cheap couple, rather like Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao. So where else are they gonna go? L.A. They were both too good-looking to live. They had to have me. So I survived to tell you the story of L.A., way back when.
RATH: There is a delicious to the detail in this book. I mean, I find myself wanting to put addresses into Google maps and look them up. When you're doing the research for the historical detail, like for instance looking into the reaction in Los Angeles after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment, how do you go about that? How do you sit down and figure out how to re-create that world of Los Angeles at that time?
ELLROY: It's in my blood. I'm a historical novelist at my heart. You know, I'm 66 years old. I realize I don't look it. And I've lived here in L.A. most of my life. It's where I come when women divorce me.
One of the first things I noted when putting the notes together for "Perfidia" was proximity. Here's Little Tokyo - the chief Japanese enclave of the era. It adjoins Chinatown. You go a few blocks west you have the LAPD Central Station and the crime lab on the third floor. You cut back northeast and there's the LAPD Detective Bureau. You get on the first freeway in L.A. - the Arroyo Seco - and it's a straight-shot north to the scene of the Watanabe murder case, the Japanese family killed the day before Pearl Harbor.
It's a hotbed of geopolitical tension, war fever, racial enmity and flat-out race hate. You can go get your Peking duck and talk anti-Japanese stuff at Uncle Ace Kwan's and cut back on foot two blocks and you're in the middle of the police rousts in Little Tokyo.
So that is what gave this book this realization of mine. It's combustible. It's all localized. This is in a weird way both sprawling L.A. and small-town L.A. at the same time.
RATH: Halfway through my conversation with novelist James Ellroy, our food arrives. And I ask him what about historical fiction attracts him so much?
ELLROY: I've always been in awe of history. And there's an anecdote that serves to explain it. When I was 8 years old in 1956, the pervasiveness - the imaginative pervasiveness - of World War II was staggering to me. I believed that it was still going on. I said something that alerted my mother to this misconception. And she explained to me - no, sonny, the war ended in 1945, three years before you were born. And I had a very hard time believing it.
I've always been moored to recent American history. But way way back, during my youth, if a historical epoch - its big characters, its circumstances, its geopolitical stakes, its human infrastructure - speaks to me, I know it's time to write a novel about it.
RATH: So what was it about the - well, particularly the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II and the Japanese internment that caught your imagination?
ELLROY: I wanted to live World War II in the American home front with characters I had already created - missed, frankly - and dearly loved.
RATH: Do you feel like these are characters external to you or they're part of you?
ELLROY: They are entirely part of me. The laborious process that I engage of writing by hand with pen on white notebook paper, being computer-illiterate, existing outside the digital world - and I've written all 19 of my books in this manner - allows me to sustain concentration - I've come to believe - more deeply, and allows me to live more richly in the text as I compose it.
RATH: So you're - you live without a computer, without the Internet, all that.
ELLROY: I have an assistant. She has a cell phone. She has a computer. She types my books. And I submit hand-written pages to her. I have a fax machine, too.
RATH: What about other media - are you watching the news, listening to the news? Like, what do you take in?
ELLROY: No. No. I'm not.
RATH: What's your media diet?
ELLROY: I have a music room and a classical CD collection and a great stereo system. Aside from that, I will watch the occasional crime TV show at a friend's place. I have no television. I have no VCR. I don't watch the news. I don't listen to the radio or read newspapers. I largely ignore the world today. I live almost completely and very happily within my imagination.
I'm like - and God will forgive me for this comparison - Beethoven at his desk with a quill pen and his piano over here that he taps out notes on. Although, I can't play the piano.
I like going back to another time and getting lost in it and living, as immediately as I can, the lives of a tormented Japanese criminologist who is in the direst of straits the month of December 1941, Kay Lake, William H. Parker and Dudley Smith.
RATH: James Ellroy, it's been a blast speaking with you. Thank you so much.
ELLROY: Arun, it was a deep-down, dirty, lasciviously L.A. blast.
RATH: The novelist James Ellroy - his newest novel, "Perfidia," is out now. And by the way, those crab cakes were delicious.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.